Social change and post-war unmarried mothers: Topic 2

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Topic 2: Unmarried mothers and forced adoptions

Learning intention: to explore the practice and impacts of forced adoptions.
Focus on community perceptions of unmarried mothers and how these shaped the practice of forced adoptions and the lives of those involved.

Some ideas to build upon

In the years following World War II teenagers were becoming more sexually active, however use and knowledge of contraceptives was limited.

When an expectant mother began to show that she was pregnant and her family didn’t want it publicly known, there were few choices. Some remained in the family home, hidden away when visitors arrived. Others were sent away, usually interstate or to the nearest big town. These decisions were often made by parents. The daughter became a shameful secret.

Watch The single mother and her child, Four Corners, 1970


  • Why and how were women stigmatised for pregnancies outside of marriage?
  • In 1970, one birth in 12 in Australia was ‘illegitimate’. Explore what illegitimate means in this context and what implications it could have for the child. What does illegitimate mean today?
  • What was the effect of a pregnancy outside of marriage on the mother’s family?
  • What factors did an unmarried pregnant woman need to consider?


Complete an empathy task. Consider Jane’s experience and identify conflicting feelings she may have had about her pregnancy.

Between 1950 and 1975, about 250,000 adoptions took place in Australia. Most of these were closed adoptions. Original birth certificates were permanently sealed, and children were placed with new families and given new names. All links to the parents were severed. Many of these adoptions occurred without proper informed consent and, in many instances, illegally. These adoptions were forced.

The use of drugs, coercion, constraints and systematic disempowerment by people in positions of authority had an overwhelming effect on young mothers. They were vulnerable to manipulation in hospitals and following the birth. Many mothers have no recollection of signing consent to adopt, while others signed feeling completely defeated. There was no recognition that they might feel grief at the loss of their child, and no counselling. Most mothers were not properly informed about their legal rights regarding the adoption process.

Watch Forced adoption – a mother's experience


  • What do these experiences tell us about the pressure and processes that were used in forced adoption cases?
  • What were the role and power of institutions such as hospitals and the church during this period?
  • What impact did forced adoption have on these mothers?

Explore the concept of forced adoption in more detail. What factors would make an adoption process ‘forced’? Write a definition of the term.


In 1948 Australia ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Consider article 25 (2) which states:

Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Discuss the term social protection and what this means for unmarried mothers and their children.

The experience of adoption has a profound impact on the life of an adopted person as well as the mother. Knowledge about being adopted varies from case to case. Regardless of when people learned of their adoption, many have felt confusion about their background and identity. Even the happiest or most successful adoption can result in increased risk of mental illness. Identity is an unresolved issue for many adopted people.

Watch Forced adoption – an adopted person's and a father's experience

Please note: Some viewers may find the following video distressing.


  • What do these experiences tell us about being adopted?
  • Forced adoption has a profound impact on the mother and child. Who else may be affected by adoptions?


Watch more video portraits to explore other personal stories of forced adoptions. Discuss how these forced adoptions are similar and different.


Identify the factors that led to the forcing of adoptions.
Describe varied consequences of forced adoptions.

Go to topic 3: Advocacy for change